Text Jessica Ross Photographs Gallo/Getty images, Supplied
‘What is it that you most want to see?’ asked Matt. ‘Crocodiles,’ I replied.
His was a fairly mandatory question for the safari-goer and everyone has their preference – the Big Five most likely a common response. Mine was not the expected answer, but it wasn’t a lie – I’d seen crocs in the wild before, but their aloof nature was one I was drawn to – and Matt didn’t look disappointed. Being a guide in a game park is a vocation for him. And while crocs are as common as they come in South Luangwa’s game park, he is still in awe of them.
Just a half hour earlier we’d landed at Royal Airstrip in Zambia to experience our bordering country’s abundant wildlife before the wet season took charge. By the time we arrived at Chongwe House we’d seen a herd of elephant, baboons and a few one-day-old unstable baby buck. The first of the rains had come a few days before we arrived, bringing with it new life. Yet the trip to the camp told a different story: a landscape desiccated, with chalk trees extending their branches to the sky, as if praying for reprieve.
Soon the earth would welcome nonstop rainfall that, seeping into its cracks and filling barren riverbeds, would overflow and force most of the camps in the area to close. Until then, though, the animals would continue to lumber under the cruel sun, hides like beaten leather sagging from their skeletal frames.
‘A Pel’s fishing owl,’ answered a travelling companion in response to Matt’s question as we drove through the park to Chongwe House on Lake Zambezi. Matt’s eyes lit up. This is one of the top regions to spot this owl, he informed us. The Pel’s is a rare sight, but just last night the group he had taken on a drive had seen it. Our odds were good. I didn’t mind the odds – I’d never heard of it.
Just one of the many lodgings belonging to Norman Carr Safaris, Chongwe House is situated on the banks of the toponymous river, and offers a range of accommodation options besides the four-bedroomed property that stood before us. No ordinary structure, its organic, African-homestead form and Gaudi-like design are reminiscent of an elaborate anthill. Inside is almost indistinguishable from out. This is made all the more apparent by the elephants that browse the trees around the build, grazing the thatched roof as they crash past, the baboons that are known to steal inside through the open spaces where you’d expect windows or doors, and the frogs that greet you in your basin and toilet – I barely suppressed a shriek when I discovered one under my napkin at breakfast, but you shouldn’t be a wimp when you’re on safari.
Nor should you hope to while away the morning when there’s safari-ing to be done. A prompt Matt stood waiting on the porch at 5am as I stomped down the stairs vexed by the early wake-up call, which had come from the honks, grunts and puffs of the hippo pods in the Chongwe, rather than my iPhone’s Marimba. Before we’d even started sailing up the tributary I had already spotted three crocs catching a spot of sun on the river bank – Matt’s job was half done and I was awake. He chatted excitedly about the Pel’s fishing owl as we crossed into the rippling water of the Lower Zambezi. After hopping into the 4×4 on one of the river banks, Matt put his keen tracking skills to the test and steered the vehicle, wildly searching for a pride of lions that had been seen in the area the day before, and that elusive owl. And we weren’t the only ones.
While a congress of baboons had settled in a section of the vast, dusty landscape, one member patrolled atop an anthill, keeping watch for predators. Three hours later, with no pride or Pel’s in sight and a visibly disappointed Matt we needed to turn back – it was time for tea.
On safari in Zambia meals are frequent, flavourful and – following jam-packed game viewing, canoeing trips down Chongwe, fishing in the Zambezi, and G&Ts at the private pool – welcome. After a day of adventure in the unrelenting heat, sleep came easy even with the ubiquitous hippo harrumphs and mosquito whines. A river full of hungry hippos separated our dusty jeep from our next camp. Crossing the water proved to be a stealth mission: a careful avoidance of its wallowing guardians, whom I had no desire to stir. As we approached the site, small tents rapidly became more grand and exquisite than I could possibly have imagined, trepidation was replaced by an overwhelming sense of comfort – I was home. This place exudes understated style: a pared-back palette of off white, copper and grey are complemented by the virtually invisible steel architecture, mahogany pieces, colonial furnishings and lighting, thatch work, and canvas tenting that abounds.
Chinzombo, situated on the Luangwa river, is one of the original camp sites in the valley. This exclusive collection of six villas was created by Joburg architects Silvio Rech, Lesley Carsens and Jack Frenkel, a team known for their contemporary bush aesthetic. The trio’s preference for using local craftsmanship and natural materials is evident in their designs. A melange of nature’s simple perfection and the architects’ astute sense of style, the space is charged with the wild beauty of Zambia, yet it remains sleek, modern and ultra luxurious. ‘A real challenge was to get the
essence of hiding in plain sight. Essentially it’s a pristine environment with an interior that’s soft and accommodating. You notice the nature outside more than you notice the building itself,’ Silvio later explained.
Each of the villas is a statement in glamorous safari living, seen in subtle touches such as the gentle ombre curtain drops that separate the bathroom from the bed and living area; the bathtub, which calls for long soaks while you take in the bush vistas; the private pool and outdoor sofa, perfect spots to enjoy a G&T and a good read; and copper pendant lights for when starlight fails.
If I wasn’t already somnolent from the complete relaxation that the camp offers, the glorious massage provided by the spa in the comfort of my villa was enough to send me into a deep slumber. In fact, I mightn’t have gotten out of bed at all had it not been for the distinctive (and remarkably loud) cry of the Pel’s fishing owl in the middle of the night, seemingly perched in a tree somewhere close to my villa. That morning I rose with a new goal – to find that damn bird.
The good-humoured and well-informed guides at all of the camps in the Norman Carr stable are eager to help you find your own bushveld grail. Perhaps the best way to experience this is during a walking safari. Pioneered by Norman Carr in 1968, the walks don’t provide the action that you’d experience on a game drive, focusing instead on the small details: dung patterns, insect discoveries, plant names and landscape changes, all while keeping a look out for large animals that may sneak up behind you.
We caught up with a pack of wild dogs, two leopards and a puff adder on our last evening drive in Zambia. Hope for the Pel’s faded more with each kilometre passed. It’s strange how quickly darkness takes over in the wild, and as we came up to the river bank where we’d cross the river to the camp for the last time, I could feel my eyes fluttering closed. Just as I was about to nod off, the vehicle sprung into action again. John, our guide, had heard something. Just then I heard it too. The cry of a Pel’s.
We found it perched high in a tree. Under the stars this solitary owl’s ginger feathers seemed to glow, highlighting our prized spotting, and through binoculars I reflected on the find, something that felt more special and personal than any leopard in a tree, and a fitting end to a trip full of discovery and adventure. Thunder clapped in the distance, the Pel’s gave a last haunting hoot, before swooping off the scene, alone once again.